What is Underpainting?

June 21, 2017

What is Underpainting?

Underpainting, toning, imprimatura, open grisaille, closed grisaille, ebauche, color wash, dead coloring.

All of these terms describe paint layers artists apply before the final visible strokes in artworks. It can be confusing, because different schools of art over the centuries have used different terms. Each school has a unique curriculum, and uses its own subset of these paint layers. Also, the medium an artist is using requires different paint layering techniques. Fresco, which is water mixed with pigment and applied to wet plaster, will demand a different process than watercolor, acrylic, casein, egg tempera or oil paints, for example.

In all cases, it is important that the fat over lean principle be followed. The more fat, or oil you have in a paint layer, the more it will expand and contract. These expansions and contractions occur as the temperature and humidity change, and also with time as the paint oxidizes and ages. To prevent paintings from excessive cracking, peeling and bubbling up, the artist must keep the base layers lean. This means a minimal amount of oil based mediums are added to the Underpainting layers. In fact, it is permissible to use acrylic paint, which contains no oil, as an Underpainting for oil paints, which are pigments mixed with oils and sometimes binders. It is not okay to apply water based acrylic paints or acrylic gesso over oil based paint or oil primer layers.

Underpainting is a term that is widely used to describe any layers of paint prior to the final visible layers. Artists who paint with many Underpainting layers, particularly those who use glazing, velatura and scumbling which are transparent and semi opaque layers, are called indirect painters. Indirect painters work in their studios, and wait for each paint layer to dry before proceeding to the next one.

Artists who paint with opaque strokes are called direct painters, and may or may not apply Underpainting layers. Alla prima painters create their art in one sitting. If they are working in oils, they complete the paintings before they are dry, in a single layer. This is called painting wet on wet. If they do this outdoors, they are called plein air painters.

So, you can reason that there are many different types of underpaintings used to create art. Here are some simple definitions of the most commonly used underpaintings.

Toning, also called imprimatura, is simply a thin wash of transparent color, often burnt sienna or burnt umber, used to tint the painting surface. Many artists find it easier to judge value and color if their painting surface is not a bright white color. Some people even prefer to paint on solid red or yellow or black surfaces. More often, a middle of the value scale grey color is used. Many primers used to prepare surfaces are even available in mid grey colors.

Open grisaille is an Underpainting where a single colored paint is used, usually burnt umber or raw sienna, to mass in the dark shapes of the subject. Sometimes an artist will paint their entire surface and then wipe the lighter areas out. Either way, an open grisaille is a monochromatic painting that establishes the lit side and shade side, as well as the drawing and proportions.

Closed grisaille is a monochromatic Underpainting where a single pigment, usually a black or brown color, is used along with white paint to create an entire desaturated painting. A closed grisaille looks like a black and white photograph. The values are all accurate, and subsequent transparent glazes bring the painting to a finished level of realism.

Ebauche or color wash, refers to a thin, washy layer of Underpainting. This is used to mass in shapes of similar colors, and it is useful in balancing colors in compositions, as well as laying in the drawing and proportions of subjects.

Dead coloring is when a color layer of paint is applied, but the full value and saturation ranges are not used. The color is flat. The subjects appear grey, which is where the term dead comes from. Dead coloring layers are used to map out the color distribution for subsequent paint layers.

One of the things that makes art so interesting, is how many nuances there are to accomplishing the same task of pushing paint around on a surface. All of these Underpainting definitions have been, and will continue to be, implemented in ways that are unique to every artist using them. Titian’s velatura layers make his work different from Vermeer’s pieces painted with dead color layers. Students in modern ateliers learn to use Underpainting techniques consistent with contemporary and old master artist practices. There is no right way to paint. There are only options.

Article is by artist, Debra Keirce

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